SETI to mothball alien-seeking telescopes

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A shortage of funding has forced SETI's Allen Telescope Array (ATA) - used to search for signs of alien life - to shut down.

The array, at the at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO), is managed and operated by UC Berkeley's radio astronomy lab. But NSF  funding for HCRO operations has been cut to just one-tenth of its former level, and California budget shortfalls have severely reduced the amount of state funds available.

As of this week, SETI will stop making its normal observations - so we'd better hope this isn't the week aliens choose to make contact.

The equipment will be maintained - by a significally reduced staff - in the hope that operations can be restarted in the future.

"More than two years ago, seeing the early effects of these funding difficulties, the SETI Institute began an effort to replace the lost funds by seeking a partnership with the United States Air Force to conduct experiments to see how the ATA could serve as a collaborating sensor to the USAF space surveillance network, helping track space debris," says SETI CEO Tom Pierson in an email to supporters.

"This effort is ongoing and showing much promise, but near term funding has been delayed due to the same, highly publicized large scale federal budget problems we all read about in the news."

In the meantime, Pierson is asking supporters for donations. It costs around $1.5 million per year to operate the ATA, and at least another million on top of that to carry out the science.

Pierson hopes to find funding to cover two projects in particular - a two-year search of the Kepler Worlds by Jill Tarter and her team, and a project to listen to the 1,235 exoplanet candidates that the Kepler mission announced in February.

"This fabulous opportunity represents a fundamental shift to be able to point our instruments at known planetary systems, rather than at stars that might or might not host planets," he says.

But other projects using citizen scientists are set to continue, including setiQuest Explorer, which allows volunteers to look for patterns in ATA data.